Matter Interview: Donald Norman
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by Josephine Minutillo

Most of us never give a second thought to the design of simple, everyday objects—that is, until something goes wrong. Whether you’re at the dinner table and have trouble distinguishing between the salt and pepper shakers, or in a hotel room and can’t figure out how to turn on the shower, the consequences of bad design can be either inconvenient or downright frustrating.

Donald Norman knows a thing or two about the effect design, both good and bad, has on our lives.Business Week listed him alongside Philippe Starck and Zaha Hadid as one of the world’s most influential designers, though he isn’t really a designer at all. Norman refers to himself as a design theorist, among other things. He has degrees in engineering and psychology, and has been a professor and an executive. He cofounded the Nielsen Norman Group, a consulting firm that helps companies produce human-centered products and services. From The Design of Everyday Things to The Design of Future Things, over the last decades his seminal writings have opened our eyes about how we interact with basic products and advanced technologies. Last year, Norman became a regular contributor to the popular design website Core 77. His latest book, Living with Complexity, argues against simplicity and in favor of complex tools to match our increasingly complex world.
Matter: In your new book, you differentiate between complex and complicated. Is there a similar difference between simple and minimal?

Don Norman:  The word design applies to an incredible array of activities—engineering design, interior design, fashion design. More and more it’s being used to represent something close to traditional industrial design. But industrial design itself has undergone remarkable change in the last decade. It used to primarily focus on what we call styling—the appearance of something. Modern designers are much more concerned about the complexities of devices which have intricate mechanisms, hidden electronic microprocessors, displays, sensors of all sorts. They’re trying to fulfill the needs of the people who are using these objects. This has been a radical shift for designers because most of them come from schools of art or architecture and are trained in aesthetics. But the modern designer has to know technology, and has to understand people. Because a modern designer is like a psychologist, trying to devise things that change the way people work—with each other, in groups, doing their tasks, communicating. Now to answer your question, because it takes some background—traditional designers love simplicity, elegance, minimal structure. This is wonderful if you’re designing furniture, a fixed object, a building, a public square. But in today’s world, we’re designing very complex things.

So in your opinion, “Less is more,” or “Less is a bore?”

DN: Less is a bore. The famous designer who said, “Less is more,” came from the old school that is all about design being a statement. That’s not what modern design is.

How do you merge human-centered design and the inescapable need to integrate technology?

DN:  That is the real role for the designer. Designers have to work in teams. They work with the engineering team who understands the details and implements the technology, and they work with the marketing team who understands what the customers are asking for. But they themselves also have to be generalists—they have to go out and watch people doing their task to understand what their true needs are. Mind you, you can’t ask people what it is they want because if you’re doing anything new—since they’ve never experienced it—they’ll never ask for it. You have to watch them and understand how they do their jobs and where you can add value. You have to be able to take the technology that’s available and try to figure out how to package it in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing, functional, reliable, rugged, and affordable. If designers are generalists, they can work with numerous specialists to put together the end result.

You hear that more and more, that you have to be a generalist. For a long time, the focus was on being specialized, but now it seems the tide has shifted.

DN: And I think there’s a real danger here because the universities of the world increasingly train more and more specialists. Specialists are essential, but they can’t create great products because products require cutting across the specialties. I’m concerned about the design world keeping up with this need. One of my activities is trying hard to reconsider and reshape the design curriculum.

Matter: You’ve talked about the success of Apple not being just in the styling of its products, but the technology and licensing behind them. Is Jonathan Ive then a good example of that ‘new generation’ of designer?

DN:  I work with a large number of designers. I also have visited most of the major design schools across the world and I think that we have some really great designers out there. But most of them have had to be self-taught because their training was in more traditional arenas. So Johnny Ive is a good example of someone who was taught in a very traditional way, and he clearly has broadened to be the type of designer I am asking for. (He and I actually worked together briefly at Apple). I was talking recently with the CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown. He said his own training was entirely in style. He thought that was what design was all about. He has had to change his own knowledge base and the way he’s worked over the last decades. IDEO, of course, is well known for having anthropologists, social scientists, human psychologist experts, and mechanical engineers on their teams, and more and more MBA’s. And that actually is a good example of what most modern design firms are doing.

Matter: In Living with Complexity, you refer to IDEO’s work with Amtrak as an example of design thinking, or, as you put it, “Never solve the problem the client has asked you to solve.” Is it the job of the designer to instruct their clients?

DN:  If you ask most designers, they will say yes, followed by three or more exclamation points!!! I will say, yes but, and here’s the problem—traditional designers are remarkably ignorant about the world of business, about the world of technology for that matter. As I travel around the world and look at design contests and student results, they’re always amazing, and wonderful and delightful. But then you wonder “Whatever happened to them after they graduated?” The problem is that the designs are completely impractical. They make no sense as real products. Either they’re impossible to build, or they’d be far too expensive to build. Or they’re the sort of cute thing that people will look at and say, “Oh, that’s neat,” but would never buy because it doesn’t have any valuable function. So it’s also the designer’s job to be educated by the client, to understand what the real business of the client is so that they can make that business even more successful. It has to be a two way street.

Matter: Your book argues against simplicity, and implies that people don’t really want it.

DN:  People claim they want simplicity but if you watch their behavior, that’s not what they purchase. There are at least two reasons. One is because the simple things don’t do the job they want. And in the store, a good salesperson says, well look what you’re missing. That, I think, is legitimate. So it’s up to the designer to provide the power, but also make it so that it a product is usable. The second reason is an important component of design—many devices, especially big things or things that you carry with you and other people notice, are a statement of yourself. The appearance of the automobile is critical; people often define you by the kind of automobile you drive. In the old days a university professor was supposed to drive an old, beat-up Volvo because they’re practical and sensible. If you drive an expensive car you’re making a statement. This notion of getting something that looks complex to show you’ve risen up in the world and you can afford these expensive devices—it makes no sense from a functional point of view, but from a cultural point of view, it’s very important. By the way, Bang & Olufsen is very expensive and it’s exactly the opposite philosophy. There are no knobs or dials or flashing lights, it’s simple and elegant. But the products are actually hard to use. When there are no obvious things to push or pull, you have to learn obscure things—if I push the bottom left hand corner of this solid piece of metal, it turns the equipment on. How would I ever know that? It gives the appearance of simplicity, but it isn’t really all that simple.

Does all this new technology alter our lives in the sense that we can no longer function without products that didn’t even exist a few years ago?

DN: But that is the way it has always been. We can’t function without electricity, without lights in the evening, yet there was a time not too long ago, when some people thought having electric light bulbs in the house was silly, dangerous—we’ve gotten along all these years without them. Successful technologies—there aren’t that many of them—dramatically change our lives, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Has the cell phone enhanced our lives? Absolutely. Has it made our lives more difficult and complex and irritating? Absolutely. It’s still young. Technologies can come about in decades, but people’s behavior towards them can take generations to develop. It’s often the generation that grows up with a technology that adapts to it much more easily.

Matter: What does it mean for us as individuals, in terms of our own intellect. For instance, before, if I traveled to a foreign city I relied on my foreign language skills, my ability to read a map. Now I don’t need to know anything—it’s all on an iPhone. Minus that piece of equipment, do we become idiots?

DN: Google just released a translator—I can speak into it in English and it will speak out in Spanish, a lot of these wonderful things for travel that tell you where the great restaurants are, that translates languages, that translates signs—they don’t work when you need them the most, like when I’m in a foreign country, because the power of my electronic computing and communication equipment is dictated more by my service provider’s exorbitant roaming fees and limited network connections than by the technology itself. But to your question. When the calculator was first developed and it was inexpensive enough for school children to use them, people said our math skills would deteriorate. There were similar complaints about the typewriter—our skills to write by hand will deteriorate. And guess what, they were right! I argue that what has happened is these technologies relieve us of rather dull, mundane tasks. Think about arithmetic. The invention of arithmetic was a great intellectual feat, but adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing—it’s not a particularly interesting activity. So why not turn it over to a machine that can do it far better than me. That machine doesn’t work like I do, which is why it can do it without mistakes. But I’m creative, I can figure out what the problem is that needs to be solved. These new technologies free me from a lot of the difficulties of life and let me concentrate on a higher level, more important issues. Yeah, many people don’t know their own phone numbers, or those of their friends. That’s a minor penalty to pay for the great convenience these phones offer us.

Matter: Have there been similar innovations in materials that have had similar effects? You've written about the Kindle and other e-readers being possible because of their readable screens.

: Electronic paper is a major innovation in materials. I think a lot of the great excitement is around innovations in materials. For the first time, we can actually start constructing materials to fit a need. In the really old days, it used to be that materials were only what was naturally available - metals, fabrics. But today, we can synthetically construct materials that have whatever properties needed. We need something that's lightweight and strong but conducts electricity - fine, we'll produce it. We need something that's an insulator, fine. Wire and electronics that also act as a display device. Ok. One of the great changes that is going to come about in our lives is a result of 3-D printing where you can design or buy someone's design and print it - first at a corner print shop, and eventually in your own home. You have an extra guest and you ran out of silverware or plates, well, just print them up.


DN: Really. If you don’t like your lamp, go online and find plans of a lamp you do like and print it. And these require very novel materials. Materials that can be deposited layer after layer but have exactly the right requisite properties. The first 3-D printers were really crude. Today they come with multiple colors and wonderful finishes. I’ve seen people print working parts that they can put right into a mechanism and it functions right away. The material revolution is really wonderful and exciting. We’re going to be able to do things we could have never dreamed of. The real excitement comes from a coupling of new materials, embedded microprocessors, powerful sensors, and actuators—things that move. You couple them all together, because they require one another. Good sensors and actuators require some processing, but they need to be embedded within new materials that have the strength, flexibility, transparency, electrical conductivity, and display qualities to make this possible.

Is this the result of design being a much more cross-disciplinary activity than it used to be?  

DN: There are two parts to this: It’s possible because the technologists in industrial research labs and universities have invented all these wonderful things, and because practical inventors, engineers, have figured out how to put them together. Designers are actually last in the chain. They figure out how to make it into something that’s useful for society. A lot of the major inventions come about from creative people, not designers. It could come from anybody, creative people who want to do it because they can do it. And the result they have is often very promising but would never make it as a real product. The designer’s job is to figure out what’s promising and what’s real and what fits people’s needs and transform it into a viable product. The original idea seldom comes from the designer.

Matter:  Was there backlash for saying just this in a paper last year?

DN:  Yes! My Core 77 papers are deliberately meant to be provocative. Well, I’ve been making similar claims but it wasn’t until I published it in Core 77—that’s the audience that’s been most responsive. It’s really interesting the number of people who agreed with me. I don’t consider this a negative by the way. I consider it realism. I don’t think I’m trying to criticize designers, I’m saying let’s step back a bit and think about how these things really happen. If you actually look at a large number of magical innovations, it’s by accident—but it’s by someone who recognized that the accident was informative. There’s an old saying, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” That’s something I believe in. I’m curious about everything.


Photo Credits 
1-Donald Norman Portrat - Photo C. Peter Belanger 
2-Cover, Living with Complexity by Donald Norman, The MIT Press C. 2010
3-Bang & Olufsen's Beosound 3 - Photo courtesy Bang & Olufsen
4-Amazon's Kindle - Photo courtesy Amazon

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